ENVIRONMENT-US: Free-Flowing Rivers Back in Vogue

ENVIRONMENT-US: Free-Flowing Rivers Back in Vogue

By Matthew Berger
Inter Press Service
May 26, 2009

NE W YORK, May 26 (IPS) – It may come as no surprise that a dam impeding the flow of a major river would negatively impact fish populations, but it is only recently that benefits of free-flowing rivers in the U.S. Pacific Northwest are beginning to be valued more than those of dams.

“Only 10 percent of the dams in the U.S. fulfill their original function,” Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association (PCFFA), an organisation of commercial fishing families, told IPS Friday. “For many of them, it makes more sense now to take them out.”

The Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula once hosted all five eastern Pacific salmon species – Coho, sockeye, Chinook, chum and pink – as well as steelhead trout. Then, in 1913, the first of two hydroelectric dams was built to power nearby Port Angeles.

The dams did not have fish ladders to at least give fish a chance at getting upriver to spawn, and most of the fish have long since disappeared. But with the help of 54 million dollars in federal stimulus money, the dams will be torn down beginning no later than 2011. Optimistic estimates hope for a recovery of the run by 2030.

Beginning in June, the 88-year-old Savage Rapids Dam on Oregon’s Rogue River is scheduled to be removed in pieces and replaced with electrical pumps.

And last week, Judge James A. Redden of the Oregon District Court issued a letter to the parties of a lawsuit over the legality of a 2008 biological opinion which would, if approved, set the recovery plan for dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead in the region.

Critics of the plan contend it does not do nearly enough, and Redden seems to agree, as his letter calls, at one point, for studying the possibility of breaching four lower Snake River dams “if all other measures fail”.

Dam closures are rare and hotly resisted by some locals for whom irrigation and cheaper energy are priorities, but for others who depend on the steady flow of water and steady supply of salmon that comes with it, dams cause more problems than they solve.

“What we’re learning is that today healthy rivers are more valuable as healthy rivers than as large-scale plumbing systems,” attorney Todd True of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that is party to the biological opinion case, told IPS.

These economic shifts are slowly working their way into policy, and maybe just in time.

The salmon industry is key to the livelihoods of fishermen and women, consumers, and indigenous communities from Northern California to Alaska, but in 2008 the season was cancelled along most of the West Coast by federal regulators. On May 1, they extended the fishing ban another year for California and some of Oregon.

Federal emergency funds to the tune of 53 million dollars will be paid out to the fishing communities who will go without this source of income this year.

“Every salmon system on the U.S. West Coast with the exception of Alaska is now being run by court orders,” according to Spain.

In California, the principal cause for depleted stocks is water being diverged from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers for irrigation.

The Columbia has lost 40 percent of its original flow to irrigation, according to Spain, but dams are the main culprits in reducing its stocks to 10 percent of pre-dam levels.

Columbia dams, including those on the Snake, which feeds into the Columbia, cost the fishing industry 500 million dollars and 25,000 jobs each year, he said.

The lower Snake dams, located in eastern Washington, are relatively small and recent – built in the late 1960s to early 1970s – but they pass through prime spawning territory in central Idaho.

“The dams on the Columbia, the fish can manage, though each takes another bite out of the population,” Spain said by phone Friday. “The primary culprits are the four lower Snake dams.”

The 2008 biological opinion, as it stands now, is a vestige of George W. Bush administration-era approaches, which have been accused of being unscientific and not taking the problem seriously enough.

This approach appears to have lost credibility in even the eyes of the courts. In his letter, Redden, who has been ruling on the case for seven years and has rejected two previous biological opinions, refers to aspects of the current plan as “implausible”, “arbitrary”, and “unsupported by scientific literature.”

He also cites the new administration’s “efforts to understand and become more fully engaged” as well as the prospects for amending the plan – the most extreme of which would be the removal of the dams – as reasons to be optimistic a compromise will be reached.

This by itself would not save wild salmon, but it might be a sign that times are changing.

The Pacific Northwest looks different now than it did when many of its dams were built. Originally, they were meant to support projects like the Columbia River aluminum industry, according to True. “This made sense then, but not anymore,” he said.

Now, he says, the aluminum industry is no longer along the Columbia but all over world.

“The value of these rivers has changed,” he says, in that the economic and social services local communities need from them are different now.

Dams can provide crucial benefits to the communities around them; namely, power, flood control, transportation, and water.

The Snake River dams, however, do not provide flood control benefits, as they cannot store water. And only one provides irrigation, according to Spain.

A rail system was in place in the region until 1975, and critics of the dams envision that system taking up the transportation benefits of the dams again.

Power, they say, could be more efficiently and cheaply provided through other means that were not available when the dams were first built.

“These dams do not provide that much electricity for the region,” says True. “We have alternatives that are good for fish, good for the economy, and good for the communities – it just requires a change from the status quo.”

The Bush administration did “everything it could to avoid dealing with the main problem – the dams,” he says.

The fact that this option is at least on table, albeit as a last resort, is giving fishing and environmental groups new, cautious hope.

“We’re very nearly at the last resort now,” says Spain. “Minor improvements have only clipped away at the problem.”

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